August 11, 2011

The Actor Sanogawa Ichimatsu in the Role of Shakkyō Dancer

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. This print depicts popular Kabuki actor Sanogawa Ichimatsu performing the lion dance, a highlight of the play Shakkyō (Stone bridge). Although benizuri-e (two-color prints) was the most common genre of ukiyo-e in the 1740s, Okumura Masanobu (1686–1764) produced this print in the style of urushi-e (lacquer painting). Urushi-e, in which a coating of glue was applied to certain black areas in a composition to give them a glossy texture, had been popular in the 1720s. Masanobu included a gourd logo of his publishing company, Okumura-ya, in the bottom center of this picture.

People of Many Nations

During the nearly two centuries of restricted foreign contact during the Edo period (1600–1868), the Japanese people still maintained a curiosity about foreign cultures. This map, published in the early 19th century, depicts an enormous archipelago representing Japan at the center of the world. Inset images and descriptions of foreign people, the distance from Japan to their lands, and differences in climate are noted. The locations listed include the “Pygmy country, 14,000 ri” (1 ri = 2.4 miles), “Woman country, 14,000 ri,” and “Black people country, 75,000 ri.” In the lower right, America is said to be populated by “people who are taller than in our country, white and beautiful… the further south you go, the bigger people become; at the southernmost end of South America lies the Chiika-koku (country of tall people).” The descriptions give a sense of the limited geographic knowledge and the stereotyped portrayals of foreigners in Japan in this period.

The Humors, Devil to-Suppress "Kwai-Danzi"

The victory of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, a collision over economic and political influence in Korea and Manchuria, marked the first victory of an Asian nation over a European power. This unexpected turn of events compelled the West to reassess the status of Japan in the international political order. Among Asian nations, it shattered the image of the invincibility of Western authority. While many in Japan were dissatisfied with the peace treaty that ended the war, Japan’s victory nevertheless confirmed the success of the Meiji regime’s drive towards modernization and helped to solidify the military’s growing presence in the government. This 1904 print, by Tomisato Chōmatsu, depicts Japan in the center as the “God of Peace” overpowering Russia, looked upon admiringly by England, the United States, Turkey, France, China, Korea, and Germany. The Japanese description at the bottom and its English translation in the upper left describe how Russia will be rejected by other nations while Japan will gain their support and admiration for driving away the “demon.” The figure representing Japan is holding a platter of rice cakes with the names of major places in dispute in the war.

The Actor Nakayama Tomisaburo

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. This print is one of only seven known works, all portraits of actors, by Kabukidō Enkyō (1749–1803), the sole follower of the enigmatic Tōshūsai Sharaku. Nothing was known of Enkyō until 1926, when it was discovered that he also used the name Nakamura Jūsuke II; under this name he was known as an author and Kabuki actor. It is likely that the subject here is Nakayama Tomisaburō, a male actor who played female roles, as identified by an identical print by Enkyō in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Baby Whitefish

A new and less formal style of poetry called haikai (linked verse) spread among the urbanites of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo in 17th-century Japan. Haikai was also very much a social activity, with linked-verse parties held on regular occasions in homes or at restaurants. Such poetic gatherings helped give rise to privately commissioned woodblock prints, called surimono (printed matter), which paired images with representative verses from the circle. Both were typically intended to carry the cachet of “insider knowledge” for a cultured and well-educated audience. Because such surimono were not intended for sale but as gifts, artists, engravers, and printers would produce them with extreme care. The final products are, in many cases, among the finest examples of woodblock-printing art. This print by Ryūryūkyo Shinsai (circa 1764–1820) is a still life of cut vegetables and a pot containing icefish on a tray. The translated poem by Dontontei Wataru (d. 1822) in this surimono reads: “Icefish (cooking) like melting snow/Peacefully the wine warms my breast/I feel like a spring of a thousand gold coins.”

A Samurai Drinking Sake

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. This is a preliminary sketch that may have been intended for a woodblock design. The style is reminiscent of the work of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–92), especially in the graphic portrayal of the warrior’s wounds. Among other styles, Yoshitoshi created a series of prints known as “bloody prints” because of their focus on gore. He also used the same nervous brush stroke to create multiple outlines for his forms. At the base of the image is a separate drawing of a head, carefully shaded in red and black washes.